Stephen Baxter was forced to lament one of Crusaders’ most lacklustre performances of the season on Saturday.
A 1-1 draw with Dungannon Swifts saw the Crues fall further behind runaway leaders Cliftonville at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership.
Jordan Owens headed home an 81st-minute equaliser to salvage a point on a day when the all-Ireland champions floundered on the Shore Road.
The result – coupled with Cliftonville’s 1-0 win against Ballinamallard United – leaves Crusaders a hefty 14 points adrift of their derby rivals.
They still hold a game in hand, but even victory in that outstanding fixture will offer little encouragement for Baxter.
“Cliftonville are in a very strong position,” he said.
“We’re at the stage of the season where we have to win to keep pressure on, and we failed to do that.
“We were playing catch-up before Saturday and this result makes it all the more difficult.
“I’m very disappointed with the way we played. It was a scrappy game and we didn’t get to grips with it.
“We didn’t click the way we normally do and there’ll be a few of our players who’ll be disappointed with their performances.”
Dungannon claimed the lead five minutes before the half-time interval when Neal Gawley finished off from close range.
Owens threatened to provide a grandstand finish when he headed home James Mitchell’s cross from the left with nine minutes remaining.
There would be no late winner, however, leaving the Crues to rue a missed opportunity to keep up the pressure on their derby rivals at the top.
For Dungannon boss Darren Murphy it was also an afternoon of frustration after conceding late in the game.
“I’m disappointed to concede so late on,” he said.
“We played very well for long periods and the players deserve a lot of credit.
“That’s four points from our last two league games against Portadown and Crusaders, so we’ll take the positives from that.
“I said before today that Crusaders is probably the hardest game after Cliftonville at the minute, so we have managed to come away with some reward.
“We would love to have held on for the three points, but we managed the draw so we will take the positives.
“We now have to carry this into our next game – that is the challenge.”